Men, Cancer, and the 'S' Word


What happens to the American man -- one who has been taught there is no hurdle he can't handle on his own -- when a challenge comes along that he can't simply fix?

There's a scene in the 1979 film, The Great Santini, in which a father - a U.S. Marine Corps pilot named Bull Meechum - loses a backyard basketball game to his teenage son.

It was the first time the boy had ever beaten his tough-as-nails father.

Instead of admitting defeat, Meechum is enraged. He demands to continue the game.

"Win by two," the father says.

When the boy refuses, Meechum bounces the basketball off his son's head. He does this over and over, following his son into the house.

"You gonna cry? Go ahead, squirt a few for me," he mocks. "You're my favorite daughter. I swear to god you're my sweetest little girl."

It's an extreme example, but for a lot of guys I know, this is how they grew up.

Don't be weak. Toughen up. Take it like a man. Those were the values passed from father to son, the cultural conditioning of the macho American male. The intent may have been well-meaning: Life can be unforgiving, and fathers feel obligated to prepare their sons for what lay ahead, be it war, hunger or loss.

But the emotional fallout is often devastating. I've watched too many friends slide into patterns of abuse, broken relationships and self-destructive addiction.

Forty years after The Great Santini was released, we're not as "woke" as we'd like to believe. We still raise boys to be numb to and bury their feelings. Through advertising, media, and the role models available to us in real life, men are conditioned to be tough guys — not whole human beings.

So what happens to the American man - one who has been taught there is no hurdle he can't handle on his own - when a challenge comes along that he can't simply fix?

What happens when he gets cancer?

In a word: Shame.

The man who trusted his body feels betrayed by it. The man who had developed confidence in his environment feels suddenly and irrevocably lost. He's facing a killer disease that he knows nothing about, without the language or tools to fight it. Now, he's a "patient" at the mercy of doctors, insurers and the health care system.

I know what that helplessness feels like.

Two years ago, at age 41, I was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer. Over the months that followed, I grappled mightily with shame. The diagnosis and treatment shattered all the stories I had told myself about my security in the world.

In the early going - a whirlwind of CT scans, colon surgery, starting chemotherapy - I put on my brave face and let people know I was going to beat cancer and get my life back.

Wasn't that the script I was supposed to read?

The male cancer patients shown in the media are relentlessly brave, optimistic, and inspiring. In magazines, in TV segments, on book covers, you see them continuing to care for their families, work full time, participating in fundraisers, while slaying cancer at all turns.

To put it mildly, I didn't look like that.

Depression, anxiety and fear sank their teeth into me. I turned inside myself and withdrew from my family and friends. I had been a professional writer for more than 20 years, and I couldn't write a sentence or make a phone call. In the summer of 2018, for days at a time, I would curl up in a ball on my living room floor.

Weeping, unable to function, I would obsess over death, imagining I would have to say goodbye to my wife and our young daughters — abandoning them. It was wretched.

According to society, I was supposed to be tackling cancer with positivity and determination. Yet there I was, a 6'4" heap who couldn't even get up off the floor.

I was ashamed.

It was a deep, dark hole and I only saw one way out. I needed help. Fortunately for me, I grew up in a household where it was OK to ask for help. I had permission to be competitive, while also having permission to cry openly, to hug the people close to me and to tell them, "I love you."

So I began the process of climbing out of that hole. I went to group counseling, one-on-one counseling, and other programs at the Dempsey Center, a non-profit organization founded by the actor Patrick Dempsey. I connected with people online. Through the Colon Club, and then COLONTOWN, I met people around the country and the world going through the same diagnosis and treatments.

I found people to confide in about what it's like to be a parent while "cancering." I walked or biked every day. I accepted the love of the people around me.

It took time - more time than I wanted - but eventually my depression lifted. I saw glimpses, then full experiences of joy. I began to live with more gratitude, regardless of my prognosis, and the sharp focus on the present that comes with the revelation of life's fragility. My wife and daughters welcomed this version of me with open arms. I'm not the same as I was before. I still have holes that need mending. But hopefully, in some ways I'm even more capable and loving than I was before this journey started.

I write this post knowing there is a man out there facing cancer, who's crumpled on the floor and doesn't know if he'll ever get up. If you're that man, I want to speak to you directly.

Brother, I know how much you're hurting. As strange as this might sound, you are in the only place you can be right now.

All your life, you've been taught to be tough and to get through times like this on your own.

You don't need to give up your toughness. You'll need every ounce of that. But this is not a road to be walked alone. You're going to need community. By accepting help as you face cancer, you will give yourself the best possible chance at physical and emotional recovery.

Reaching out for help isn't weak. It might be the strongest thing you will ever do.

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